Travel Industry Develops New Partnerships with Communities to Secure Small Islands from the Threat of Climate Change


By Rachel McCaffrey Head of Sustainable Tourism, INTASAVE-CARIBSAVE Group.

The tides are turning for the travel industry’s approach to sustainability and nowhere is this more evident than in island destinations. There is growing recognition from senior business leaders that sustainability is not just a matter for governments to deal with, but it also makes good business sense and mitigates risk. This high-level recognition has led in recent times to exciting new partnerships between business, communities and government to build new and more effective ways to protect fragile environments, build resilience to the impacts of climate change and give back to the communities themselves.

So what has encouraged travel companies to start factoring in the environmental bottom line and consider the impact of climate change on island nations?

From the idyllic beaches of the Maldives, to the tropical shores of the Caribbean, islands have long quenched tourists’ thirst for paradise and this makes them big business for the global travel industry. This economic opportunity is exceptional for business, governments and communities; in an era characterised by the global financial crisis, the tourism industry has nonetheless shown virtually uninterrupted growth. International tourist arrivals grew from 25 million in 1950 to 1087 million in 2013. Due to the expanding middle class in Brazil, Russia, India and particularly China, this trend is expected to continue, increasing by 3.3% a year, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation’s long-term forecast.

In the heavily tourism dependent region of the Caribbean, climate change impacts are starting to be experienced through increased storm surges, beach erosion and unpredictable rainfall.

As a whole, the tourism industry may not have felt the effects of the financial crisis quite as keenly as some other sectors, but it has not escaped from the impacts of our greatest global challenges. In fact, islands are some of the most vulnerable areas to climate change. What’s more, climate change is compounding and exacerbating some of the social and environmental problems that their popularity with tourists had already caused. On small islands, with beautiful but fragile eco-systems, changes can be keenly felt. This will have significant knock-on effects for travel businesses, as well as the communities who rely on tourism as a major source of income.

In the heavily tourism-dependent region of the Caribbean, climate change impacts are starting to be experienced through increased storm surges, beach erosion and unpredictable rainfall, while natural defences such as forest and coral reef, which prevent soil and beach erosion respectively, have been destroyed or degraded, often as a result of over-development or pollution linked to tourism. A 2014 study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reported that the Caribbean has lost around 50% of its coral reefs in the past 20 years, a rate of decline the researchers describe as ‘truly alarming’. The travel industry cannot afford to bury its head in the pristine sand, ignoring the problems for the islands they put in their brochures.

For some, this has long been part of the company ethos. TUI AG, who own big name travel brands such as Thompson, First Choice, TUI Germany, Hayes & Jarvis and Sunsail, send 30 million customers from 31 key source markets on holiday each year. They have long invested in making their operations more sustainable. As Jane Ashton, Sustainability Director at TUI says, “Being more sustainable supports the long-term success of our business. It’s as simple as that. The potential benefits include the opportunity to be recognised as a leader by investors, better risk management and being ready for forthcoming legislation, meeting growing customer demand and the related potential competitive advantages, reducing costs, protecting destinations and improving our product”.

Other businesses have started building sustainability into their bottom line. According to James Hnat, JetBlue’s Executive Vice President Corporate Affairs, “A large part of JetBlue’s business is transporting customers from cold cities to warm, beautiful beaches. The health and appearance of a destination has a direct impact on our revenue. By putting actual dollar numbers to the importance of ocean conservation, we will strengthen interest in protecting the destinations and ecosystems we depend on both financially and ecologically.”

The airline partnered with the Ocean Foundation in 2013 to develop a plan to protect the region’s natural resources, show the value of clean beaches and directly tie ecology and the importance of nature to the airline’s base measurement – revenue per available seat mile.

Although projects like this are building the economic case for action, there are remaining barriers, which prevent other tourism operators from actively engaging in sustainability. The tourism industry works on tight margins and customer surveys show that when choosing a holiday destination, sustainability credentials are not priority factors. However, on closer inspection, all is not as it seems. Tourists do overwhelmingly want attractive natural environments and a friendly welcome from the local people. So, preserving these environments and the communities that depend on them is integral to maintaining business. Tour operators that have recognised that this is at the heart of sustainability and integrated this into their business models are ahead of the game. In the last ten years the ‘responsible tourism’ movement has mushroomed, with more and more businesses appreciating the benefits of investing in the destinations they send tourists to.

Tour operators are increasingly recognising that a more traditional philanthropic approach to destination stewardship is not innovative enough to effect real change in island destinations. Instead, companies are beginning to see the need to work with local NGOs and community groups to develop public-private partnerships, rather than simply developing standalone initiatives. Virgin Holidays, cruise specialist Royal Caribbean International and Jamaican-owned Sandals Resorts have all demonstrated a commitment to community support and innovation in sustainability. It therefore seemed a natural fit for these tourism businesses to come together in Jamaica to support the Caribbean Fish Sanctuaries Partnership Initiative (C-FISH). Managed by CARIBSAVE, with funding from the UK Department for International Development, this project is a practical example of how to respond to the impacts and risks of climate change by supporting community management of a network of marine protected areas. These fish sanctuaries are ‘no take’ zones, allowing fish stocks to recover and spread outside the protected area, which is delineated with marker buoys and patrolled by wardens from the local community.

The ‘responsible tourism’ movement has mushroomed, with more and more businesses appreciating the benefits of investing in the destinations they send tourists to.

Sandals hotels are supporting a craft development programme and will stock the products produced under the C-FISH brand in their gift shops. Meanwhile, Royal Caribbean are providing funding for the set up of two ‘coral nurseries’. The coral nurseries programme will train local spear fishers (who are typically extremely poor) as ‘coral gardeners’ to nurture and grow fragments of climate resilient corals before transplanting them on to damaged reef, to rebuild it and protect the shoreline and beaches from the storms and sea level rise likely to result from climate change.

To reduce the reliance on fishing and associated vulnerability, CARIBSAVE and Virgin Holidays are also implementing an alternative livelihoods development programme, working with the local community to establish a programme of tourist excursions at Bluefields Bay fish sanctuary on the west coast of Jamaica. This will provide employment for locals and bring money into the community as well as enhancing the programme of excursions that Virgin is able to offer its customers.

These public-private partnerships benefit everyone. For CARIBSAVE and C-FISH project funder, DFID, they have helped ensure this important development project has real world relevance and so should remain sustainable once the funding ends. The tourism industry recognises the opportunities provided; Virgin Holidays pride themselves in the UK market as knowing the Caribbean better than anyone else. So, by being able to offer their customers an exclusive excursion focused on the culture and heritage of Jamaica, they underpin this difference while contributing to the environmental restoration and economic growth of the island. Likewise, it is in the interest of Sandals hotels to help preserve Jamaica’s coral reefs and build community relations. While Royal Caribbean recognise that destination sustainability is ‘good for our guests, as well as being the right thing to do’.

Ultimately, making tourism sustainable is just taking care of business, and the more tour operators that recognise this, the better for business, communities, environments and island nations themselves.


Rachel McCaffrey is the Head of Sustainable Tourism for the INTASAVE-CARIBSAVE Group. INTASAVE specialise in innovative climate change solutions and sustainable international development; supporting and enhancing livelihoods, economies and environments around the world. INTASAVE and their regional entity in the Caribbean, CARIBSAVE, are committed to working with all relevant sectors to ensure the effectiveness, relevance and sustainability of the development solutions we implement. The organisation has offices in China, Malaysia, East Africa, South Africa, Europe and the Caribbean and work on climate change at policy and project level in over 40 countries.

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